AG IN POLITICAL WILDERNESS

I’ve been waiting for Barnaby Joyce to take the credit for the Nick Kyrgios win over Rafael Nadal - he seems to have already claimed just about everything else.

In addition to the relaxation of import restrictions, the $60 million package the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took to Jakarta in July 2013 is now having a positive effect on our live trade numbers.

I’ve often said that the live trade pause was regrettable. But it also gave birth to the best animal welfare system in the world.  Now, whenever Barnaby Joyce announces he’s hoping to open new markets, he cites that same animal welfare system as the initiative which makes securing new markets possible. I need not go into Barnaby Joyce taking credit for Western Australia’s bumper wheat harvest or for Labor’s Farm Finance package.  But what about the drought assistance?

Back in February drought was a front-page story most days.  We couldn’t turn on morning television without hearing about it.  Newspapers, radio stations and others were launching efforts to establish drought relief funds.  It was a red-hot issue - and a problem for the Abbott government.

Then came Tony Abbott’s drought tour and soon after, an announcement of a new drought package.  The centrepiece was a $280 million concessional loans scheme, modelled on Labor’s Farm Finance scheme.  While the media stories disappeared the drought did not and the problem is, not one farming family has yet secured a loan under the new drought scheme.

Agriculture policy in the first year of the Abbott government has been most marked by inertia.  While we wait for the much vaunted Agriculture White Paper, all policy remains on hold.  And almost every agriculture-related bill which has passed this Parliament originated in the last Parliament.

But I should not sell Barnaby Joyce short.  I acknowledge three achievements.

First, the Agriculture Minister is the only senior member of the government to publicly acknowledge that the Japan Free Trade Agreement sells agriculture short.  It’s a sentiment he shares with both me and the sector.

Second, he has embarked on a new decentralisation policy – the centrepiece is the relocation of his ministerial office from Sydney to Armidale.  It’s a move which will give Barnaby a presence in the two major towns in his electorate – one in Tamworth and one in Armidale.

Third, he has increased agriculture research and development by $100 million over four years.  But the problem is he’s taken almost that much out of other agriculture-related research and development programs – in the CSIRO, our Co-operative Research Centres and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.  He’s robbed Peter to pay Paul.

Let’s hope the Agriculture White Paper (being developed by the Prime Minister’s Department) pulls a rabbit out of a hat because so far, it’s been a dry argument for agriculture in more ways than one.

However if the delay of the Green Paper is indicative of the White Paper progress, the Agricultural sector, certainly shouldn’t hold its breath.

This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Wednesday the 16th of July 2014.


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